All means ALL! To treat some as less than–or as an aberration or abomination–is in violation of the Gospel and incompatible with Christian teaching.
I preached these words at First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (website) on November 20, a pivotal Sunday in the liturgical year and in this congregation’s history.
Christ the King Sunday pivots the liturgical year from the culmination of Pentecost to the expectancy of Advent. Added to the significance of this particular Sunday was the fact that this was the congregation’s first opportunity to vote on whether to join the Reconciling Ministries Network (website). A “Reconciling congregation” openly welcomes all, including LGBTQIA+ people, into the full life and leadership of the church.
It is a pivotal period in my own life too! I just marked my 82nd birthday and my 62nd year of ministry in The (United) Methodist Church. It has been an ever-expanding journey from narrow provincialism, rigid moralism, and dogmatic exclusivism to a sense of mystery before an expanding cosmos created by a loving God; ongoing experiences of grace upon grace; and ever-deepening friendship with Jesus the Christ, who is “all in all.”
Since Christ is all in all and has reconciled all things, the usual categories by which we evaluate people and build dividing walls of hostility and exclusion no longer apply.
“There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free,” male or female, gay or straight, traditionalist or progressive, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican! All are one as beloved children of God.
Here is the link to the service. The sermon begins at approximately 39 minutes, but I encourage you to experience the entire service.
Amy-Jill Levine’s recent book, Witness at the Cross, includes a chapter entitled “The Other Victims.” It is the account of Jesus’s interaction with the two anonymous men crucified with him. Dr. Levine aptly suggests that the inclusion by the Gospel writers of these two condemned men forces us to consider those awaiting execution in today’s prisons.
Over my years as a pastor and a bishop, I have spent many hours sitting with men condemned to be executed. Unlike the men in the Gospels, the ones I have visited have names. I have known some of their families. I listened to the anguished cries of a mother who watched her son executed by the state. She loved her son no less than the mother of the person he had murdered. In the name of “justice for the victim,” the state created additional victims and added to the culture of violence that plagues our world.
South Carolina is set to resume executions later this month. Since the state has had difficulty obtaining the lethal drugs needed to put Richard Moore to death, he must choose between the electric chair and the firing squad. Below is a letter I have sent to the governor requesting that he stop this barbaric action.
May Jesus’s attentiveness to the two other victims of state-sponsored execution on that fateful day two thousand years ago cause us to remember the approximately 2500 persons awaiting execution in our prisons today. From my understanding of the Incarnation, their execution will be a repeat of Jesus’s crucifixion!
It was for the two “bandits,” those participating in the execution, and usthat Jesus prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 CEB).
The Honorable Henry McMaster State House 1100 Gervais Street Columbia, South Carolina 29201
Dear Governor McMaster:
I wish to strongly urge you to stay the execution of Richard Moore, currently scheduled to take place April 29. While Mr. Moore’s crime is a grave tragedy for which accountability is appropriate, it does not reach the level of premeditation and heinousness for which the death penalty is intended. From the news reports and court records, he entered the convenient store unarmed and his offense was fueled by drug addiction; therefore, the resulting murder was not premediated and took place in a struggle over a weapon.
During this Holy Week for Christians, we relive the state sponsored execution of Jesus the Christ. As a retired United Methodist bishop, pastor, and seminary professor, I strongly support my denomination’s opposition to the death penalty. No evidence exists that executions are a deterrent to crime, and death inflicted by the state only adds to the culture of violence that permeates our society. Having visited persons on death row over more than fifty years of Christian ministry, I can testify that it only adds to the number of victims of violence as the families and friends of those executed are victimized by the state.
I hope that before you make your decision whether to stop this barbaric act that you will exercise courage and visit with Mr. Moore and his family. As Jesus was attentive in his dying hours to the two men executed with him and offered forgiveness and assurance, I hope you will be attentive to Mr. Moore as a fellow human being, made in the divine image and redeemed in Jesus Christ. As one who has publicly declared as being “pro-life,” please be consistently pro-life and respect Mr. Moore’s right to life.
Please be assured of my prayers as you discern the fate of Mr. Moore. May you bear witness to the justice and compassion as made known in Jesus the Christ, whom you and I seek to follow and serve.
It’s no idle question reserved for abstract thinking by academic theologians or reflective pastors. Was the vulnerable, helpless baby Jesus the Savior of the world or only the potential, future Savior?
Much of Christendom limits Jesus’s saving acts to the three years of his public ministry, with the decisive actions taking place the last week or even his three hours on the cross.
Only Matthew and Luke make direct reference to Jesus’s birth, though John describes the Incarnation in philosophical language (John 1:1-14). Other New Testament writers place the emphasis on his teachings, death, and resurrection as indicators of his identity as “Savior.”
Does that mean Jesus became Savior at his baptism and not at his birth?
Some in the early church believed that Jesus was “adopted” as the Son of God at his baptism, or crucifixion, or resurrection. His birth and early life were mere prelude or preparation for becoming the Savior.
“Adoptionism,” however, was declared a heresy by the Synod of Antioch and the first Council of Nicea in 325 AD. But the notion of Jesus’s birth and obscure years as being inconsequential to his role as Savior remains prominent in today’s understanding and practice of Incarnation.
At the core of the meaning of Incarnation, however, is that the sovereign, infinite God of all Creation became flesh in a helpless baby, born among the homeless of an unmarried teenage peasant girl in a faraway corner of the earth. He spent the first two years of his life as an immigrant. He grew up in a working-class family in a backwoods town, without any notoriety, doing nothing newsworthy or particularly noticeable.
Jesus was no less the Son of God as he nursed at Mary’s breast than when he was hanging on a cross. He was the Savior while having his diaper changed AND while feeding the multitudes and healing the sick. He was Emmanuel, God with us, while learning the Torah in the Nazareth synagogue as when he was teaching the disciples on the hillside. He was the Word-made-flesh as he worked with his hands in the carpenter’s shop as surely as when his hands were nailed to a tree on Golgotha.
The Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth is more than a story of how God came in human flesh two thousand years ago. It is a description of how God comes NOW. God continues to come in vulnerability, powerlessness, poverty, dependency, and obscurity. And it is through vulnerability, weakness, powerlessness, and obscurity that Christ SAVES us.
Another name for the God who became human is LOVE, and love is a relationship of giving and receiving. Another way to describe it is as a dance. Dancing involves both leading and following. Sometimes love requires that we lead, even lift the other; at other times, we follow, and are lifted off by the other.
In the last years of my wife Linda’s life, she was totally dependent on my care and that of others. Her vulnerability, weakness, and powerlessness called forth our acts of love and devotion. Through her vulnerability, the “fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) grew in those of us who loved her: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Jesus the Christ still saves us through the vulnerable, weak, powerless, and dependent. Our most transformative celebration of Christmas is to meet him in those he called “the least of these”–the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the imprisoned, the sick, the grieving (Matthew 25:31-46).
One of my previous blogs consisted of reflections on entering my eighties. The dominating theme was that time is running out for me. Capacities and experiences are diminishing rather than expanding. More family members and close friends are dying than are being born. I am more focused on endings than beginnings.
Then on March 20, my granddaughter, Katelyn Nash Aiken, gave birth to Vera Faye! Suddenly, life expanded rather than contracted. Coincidently, she was born on the first day of Spring as the earth was bursting with new life and beauty.
One look into Vera Faye’s beautiful, innocent eyes, and my heart leapt with joy. Here was pure, spontaneous love connecting across generations. It was a holy moment!
Her sparkling eyes and spirited smile brought instant joy. I felt the sanctity of pure love and the hope of new beginnings.
Such is the rhythm of creation. Such is the cycle of life. Birth and old age are part of the same tapestry of life. Being born and dying are built into the structure of everything, human and nonhuman.
There is continuity between beginnings and endings, birth and death. In one sense, nothing ever totally dies. All life is interrelated and in a constant process of changing. Biologically, we are all a collection of recycled atoms!
But we are more than clusters of cells and atoms. We are interconnected stories and part of a God’s Story of creation, liberation, restoration, incarnation, and transformation.
At the heart of life’s story is love, which is the power that creates us, connects us with one another and the creation, and ever seeks to unite us and enable us to flourish as God’s beloved children.
Sixty years ago tomorrow, June 30, Linda and I entered the covenant of marriage. I’m sorry that she did not live to know her great granddaughter. I can only imagine her ecstatic joy given the chance to hold this new member of our family. I will still celebrate our life together which now lives on in Vera Faye.
Vera not only carries Linda’s genes; she bears her middle name, Faye!
With Vera Faye’s instinctive grasp of my finger, I feel connected to one whose hand I can hold no longer but whose love continues to give life and hope.
I experienced Pentecost in the most surprising place. It was four years ago, June 4, 2017.
Approximately twenty-five residents in varying stages of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, plus six or eight volunteers, gathered for worship at Bethany, the memory-care facility at the Heritage at Lowman in Chapin, South Carolina.
Below is a slightly revised blog I shared following that service. I share it once more in hopes that we will all experience Pentecost again!
“How do we tell someone who has lost language comprehension that we love her?” I asked the worshippers at Bethany, the memory-care facility where my wife, Linda, was a resident for eighteen months. Beside me stood a resident whose speech has been reduced to incoherent babbling. She looked into my eyes as though longing to speak.
“Hug her,” came a response from a resident who struggles with hallucinations as well as lost and distorted memories. I put my arm around her and she embraced me in return.
Looking into her sad eyes and calling her by name, I said, “I love you!”
Suddenly, the sadness in her eyes turned to a sparkle. With a faint smile, she said plainly for all to hear, “I love you!” Babbling turned to the language of love.
It was Pentecost Sunday! We had been singing such hymns as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Kum bah Yah,”“Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this Place,” and “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in this Place.”
We heard the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 where people with different languages and cultures and traditions understood one another. “Tongues of fire” descended on diverse and multi-lingual people and God’s Spirit created a new community.
Bethany became a new community as the barriers once again crumbled!
Present among the residents were various religious traditions: American Baptist, Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Holiness, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Jewish. A few claim no religious affiliation. Some present in the service have forgotten God and no longer remember who Jesus is. Perhaps a few have never consciously known God.
All share a common characteristic: Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.They are at various stages in their disease, but all are unable to live alone and care for themselves.
“What made it possible for the people present at that Jewish festival to understand one another even though they spoke different languages?” I asked the worshippers.
“They loved one another,” a resident called out. A conversation followed about how love enables us to understand and accept one another.
Other languages are present at Bethany. One couple speaks Portuguese. One’s native tongue is Spanish and another’s is Italian. A staff member speaks Swahili.A volunteer present for the service knows French and German.
“Let’s learn to say “I love you” in different languages,” I suggested. So, we tried to speak words of love in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Swahili. With varying degrees of success, we tried to speak love in multiple languages.
It was during those exchanges that the resident whose language skills have been destroyed by her disease came and stood beside me. How do we say “I love you” to someone who can’t speak or understand words?
There followed a time of practicing love without words—hugs, handshakes, an open hand, a pat on the back, a warm smile. Other love languages were mentioned—helping, protecting, encouraging, feeding, bathing, just being with….
They got it! Beneath all our hyper-cognitive theological talk and creedal statements is the simple reality that God is LOVE. To love is to know God! Pentecost happens when people express the multiple languages of love!
The worshippers at Bethany are a microcosm of our world. They are black and white and brown. They are Christian, Jewish, and none of the above. Their behaviors are sometimes offensive and difficult. Intellectual abilities vary broadly. For some, the filters are gone, and they cross boundaries of affection and relationships. Some have been highly skilled professional people. Others have a background of common labor.
They are just like the rest of us! As I listen to the rancor in our society and churches and the talk about the United Methodist Church dividing as a denomination, I pray that we learn and practice the languages of love. One thing that binds us all together: We are God’s beloved children!
Within the embrace and “I love you” from the worshipper at Bethany on Pentecost Sunday was another voice! It was God’s Holy Spirit speaking the language of Greater Love, declaring to us all, “I know you by name. I have redeemed you! You are mine!”
We are surrounded by God’s ever-present love. Sharing that love in simple acts of kindness, compassion, and justice is our highest calling.
During my early childhood, my parents were tenant farmers and sharecroppers. We lived on three different farms in eastern Tennessee before I was nine years old. Two of the land owners made indelible, contrasting impressions on me. They helped to form my images of God and power.
One landowner scared me! I was only five years old when he held me over a rain barrel, threatening to drown me for playing on the roof of one of the farm buildings. “You’re gonna learn to respect me and my property,” he said angrily as he dangled me over the water.
“Respect” to him meant compliance, obedience, and “knowing our place.” We were among his possessions and considered to be subservient and dispensable. The housing provided for our family of six was a two-room shack with no insolation in the walls, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing.
I didn’t respect him. I was scared of him! Yes, I addressed him thereafter as “sir” and lived in constant fear that I would do something to displease him, but I secretly loathed him!
At that time, our family attended city-wide religious rallies, camp meetings, and revivals in which God was portrayed as a stern and sovereign judge who keeps records of all our wrongs. The end of the world was drawing near, and God would punish the wrongdoers and those who had not “accepted Jesus” by sending them to a burning hell for everlasting punishment. It felt as though I was being held over a burning inferno.
Though I didn’t consciously make the connection as a young child, the cruel landlord and God got connected in my mind. They both were all powerful, owned our livelihood, and expected, above all else, our respect, obedience, and acceptance of our place as “miserable sinners.”
That’s one image of God and power — authoritarian; dominating; controlling by intimidation, power-over; the superior enforcer; the judge. It’s often more subtle than what I experienced from that landlord, but it is no less dangerous and destructive.
Thankfully, we moved from that farm shortly after the incident with the rain barrel. The new landlord, Mr. Street, lived in a neighboring state. The house provided had four rooms and was much more comfortable for six people, though still no electricity and indoor plumbing.
The owner always let us know when he would be coming to visit. We eagerly waited for his arrival because he would bring us kids candy and my parents some useful gift. He would spend the day working in the field alongside us. (Yes, we children worked in the fields, too, hoeing rows of corn, cleaning out the barn, etc.) He was always kind, affirming of our work, and respectful of us!
We stayed on that farm for two years. The owner actually encouraged my dad to get his own small farm and offered to help make it possible. Tragically, he was killed in an accident on his farm in North Carolina. We were all saddened by the news. We respected him, trusted him, and enjoyed his presence.
Shortly after the kind landlord’s death, we moved again, this time to a small, hilly farm of 20 acres, which our parents bought on credit. Located within sight was McKinley Methodist Church. At age ten, I visited the church for the first time. Though it was seventy years ago, I remember it well. The teacher, Mrs. Mahoney, met me at the doorway and welcomed me with a warm hug.
The lesson that day was on the Good Shepherd. Mrs. Mahoney made a startling comment that began reshaping my image of God. She said, “God is like a good shepherd who searches for lost sheep and safely returns them home.” She not only told the story; she embodied it!
God was not the severe landlord eager to punish and destroy the world. God was a tender shepherd who cared for the sheep, protected them, even willing to lay down his life for them.
And God is more like the kind landlord who respected us, worked alongside us. He empowers rather than dominates, engenders love rather than fear, and encourages instead of terrorizes.
The contrasting images of God and power operate today in the worlds of business, education, politics, and religion. Maybe there is some of both landlords in all of us. But I know which one is most like the God we know in Jesus.
Since reaching my 80th birthday in November, I have been keenly aware that I am running out of time. According to the Social Security actuaries, my life expectancy is now in single digits, roughly eight more years. That’s a sobering realization.
For most of my life, my orientation has been toward the future, anticipating and preparing for new beginnings. Beginning school, entering marriage, starting a family, graduating from school, launching a vocation, moving to a new congregation and community, retiring from one position and beginning another one, having grandchildren and even a great grandchild. The future has seemed limitless.
Now, I am living with more endings than beginnings. I have more memories than dreams, more recollections than anticipations. I’m losing more long-time friends and family members faster than gaining new ones.
Diminishment is my reality. Diminished energy, diminished engagements, diminished responsibilities, diminished influence, diminished number of living siblings, diminished circle of friends, diminished mobility.
Although my health is currently strong and my cognitive capacities are intact, frailty is likely just around the corner. I dread that phase for me and my family. I prefer to skip feebleness, but physical and mental frailty is the norm in our later years.
This sounds so depressing! Admittedly, I am grieving a multitude of losses and learning to live with accumulating endings and fewer beginnings.
Laments have become integral to my prayer life. Psalm 71 surfaces regularly: “Do not cast me off in the time of my old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.”
Laments, however, clear the way for possible new beginnings. They are means of letting go, probing deeper, and re-ordering priorities. Lament makes possible a re-orientation toward the present and future.
During a seminar on pastoral care and dementia, a friend asked, “Ken, you cared for Linda during the years of her frailty and death. What did you learn in that process that is helpful as you face your own frail years?”
My immediate response was that I know I will be supported in my infirmity by people who love me. As Linda was surrounded by love and support as her capacities diminished, I will be upheld by that same love. I may not be able to reciprocate, but I know from experience that love expands as we live in solidarity with the vulnerable and powerless. After all, love endures because love is participation in the very life of God.
As I have continued to ponder my friend’s question, other lessons have emerged.
Loving Linda in her frailty has taught me to value the present moment and fill it with as much joy and love as possible. In reality, the present moment is all any of us have for certain. As with most things, time increases in value as it decreases in quantity. In a sense, each moment is a new opportunity, even a new beginning!
Linda also helped me to learn that it’s the simple, even unnoticed actions that have the most meaning. A gesture of recognition, fleeting smile, twinkle in the eyes, gentle squeeze of the hand, simple act of kindness toward those nearby have immeasurable effects. Though the circle of relationships may grow smaller, the depth of the love can grow deeper. As Mother Teresa affirmed: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
Finally, I am learning that being really is more important than doing! That is a hard reality to accept in a society that values productivity above almost all else. Human worth often is measured by capacities to produce, to DO! I’m living proof that the ability to DO inevitably diminishes with the advancement of age. But BEING a beloved child of God has no expiration date.
Although death has taken Linda’s presence from me, she remains part of my BEING, reminding me that when death comes to me, I will still be part of those with whom I have shared love.
It was a Sunday afternoon before Christmas in the early 1970s. I was resting comfortably in the parsonage in Abingdon, Virginia, when the telephone rang. It was the owner of the local funeral home, a member of the church I was serving.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Kenneth, but I need some help. A man is here whose wife died and they have no church affiliation. He is from this area but has been away for several years. Would you be willing to come down and help him plan a funeral service?”
I readily agreed and made my way to the funeral home. I wasn’t prepared for what followed. There awaited a young father and two children, Patricia, age 5, and two-year-old Eddie. They were the same ages as our daughters, Sheri and Sandra.
The father was grief-stricken. His wife, whom he had married in Korea during the war, had died from cancer. He needed help in telling the children that their mother had died. How do you help young children understand that their mother is gone? Here it is a few days before Christmas and Patricia and Eddie have lost the one who gave them birth and cared for them. I don’t remember what I said. I just remember hugging them!
We had the funeral a couple of days later. Only a dozen or so people were present. After the service, I asked the father what they were would be doing Christmas Eve. He had no plans but to be with his relative. I asked if he would like Patricia and Eddie to spend Christmas Eve with us. Eddie decided he wanted to stay with his Dad, but Patricia was eager to be with Sheri and Sandra.
Linda rushed out and bought more presents to place under the tree as we anticipated having a special guest for Christmas, a little five-year-old who had just lost her mother.
The Christmas Eve celebration began with a service at the church. It was a simple portrayal of the Nativity as described in Luke and Matthew. I narrated the story from the pulpit while the shepherds, magi, Mary and Joseph, and angels made their way to the altar.
Linda sat on the front row with Sheri, Sandra, and Patricia. I heard Sheri whispering to Patricia throughout the drama. I suddenly realized what was happening. She and Sandra were interpreting the drama to Patricia. It dawned on me that she was experiencing the Christmas story for the first time, and she was hearing it from two little girls.
Following the service, we gathered at the parsonage for dinner. About the time dessert was served, Patricia got up from the table and ran to a bedroom crying. After a short time, I followed her into the dark room.
I cradled her in my arms as she sobbed. “You miss your Momma, don’t you? I’m so sorry. It’s okay to cry.”
Suddenly, the door opened and into the darkness came Sheri and Sandra. Sheri was carrying one of her favorite possessions, a jeweled box given to her by her grandmother. She reached it toward Patricia and said, “This is for you.”
Patricia’s tears stopped as she reached for her gift. She slowly returned to her dessert, holding onto her special present.
That Christmas, more than forty-five years ago, remains my most memorable and transformative Christmas. Amid the darkness of grief and loss, three little girls BECAME the Christmas story.
May we, too, become the Christmas Story amid the darkness of our grieving and suffering world.
Anxiety reigns as the election draws near! Both sides of the political divide imagine the results in apocalyptic terms. Indeed, much is at stake! Nothing less than the future of our democracy and stability of society’s institutions hang in the balance. The Right and the Left and the Middle have contrasting interpretations of “democracy” and “stability”; and visions of the nation’s desired future are colliding in the choices citizens are making in the election.
Admittedly, I am more anxious about the future of my homeland than I have been in my almost eighty years. I fear the consequences of continued polarization, ideological warfare, political dysfunction, corruption, dishonesty by governmental and institutional leaders, the harshness and crudeness of our discourse, and the blatant racism and tribalism expressed at the highest levels of our government.
Then, there is the Covid-19 pandemic that is killing more and more of our citizens while many deny its deadliness.I yearn for empathetic, compassionate leadership that pays attention to God-given science and puts the welfare of ALL above personal aggrandizement and political expediency.
Now is the time to get in touch with the foundation that will remain beyond the election results. This isn’t the first time people of faith have endured the crumbling of national, institutional, and cultural foundations. Neither will it be the last time catastrophic threats will appear.
Out of the agonizing laments of a collapsing nation and widespread despair came this resounding declaration following the collapse of Judah and the destruction of the economic and social life among the citizenry at the hands of Babylon:
The steadfast love of the LORD
his mercies never come to an
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
The LORD is my portion, says
therefore I will hope in him.
That is the bedrock foundation that will not be shaken by the election. Hesed, the Hebrew word translated as “steadfast love,” declares God’s unrelenting, loyal, unshakable compassion, mercy, and justice. It is at the heart of God’s character, the essence of the Divine Being.
Love, Compassion, Mercy, and Justice will remain deeply embedded in the nature of reality, whatever happens in the election. They are divine components of creation itself. And, nations and institutions rise and fall in accordance with how they embody “the steadfast love of the Lord” and the mercy that never ceases.
Whatever happens in the election, God will be faithful in “defending the orphans, widows, and sojourners (immigrants); announcing good news to the poor and release to the captives; entering solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, the dying; breaking down the dividing walls of hostility and welcoming ALL into a beloved community; and bringing to completion the reign of justice, compassion, hospitality, and joy.
I remain anxious about the outcome of the election. But I will not give up! Indeed, there will continue tobe opportunities to expand the circle of love, practice compassion in places of suffering, extend mercy to those in need, and work for justice so all may have access to God’s table of abundance.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.” Therein lies my hope and my calling beyond the election.